Mathayus, the anti-heroic character originating from Universal Studios’ MUMMY RETURNS, is back for another solo adventure in this direct-to-video prequel to THE SCORPION KING (2002). Replacing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is former “Blue Ranger” Michael Copon (POWER RANGERS: TIME FORCE) in a lightly entertaining but forgettable B-actioner best described as JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS meets HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS.
Following a cheap 300-style opening fight sequence, this new story picks up years before Mathayus became the Scorpion King. His father is murdered by Sargon (Randy Couture), the trainer of an elite fighting force known as the Black Scorpions. Mathayus vows to avenge his father’s death and spends the next several years becoming the Black Scorpion’s top recruit while Sargon becomes king. Upon returning, Mathayus confronts Sargon but is thwarted by his black magic. With his feisty childhood friend Layla (Karen David), he journeys in search of a fabled sword capable of defeating Sargon’s magic. Joined by a charismatic poet and scholar named Ari (Simon Quarterman) and a handful of mercenaries, the pair travels into the bowels of a Minotaur lair to find the entrance to the Underworld where the sword is guarded by Astarte (Natalie Becker), Queen of the Underworld.
Like the previous film THE SCORPION KING 2 is pulp material, the kind of disposable story that would have once been broken up in serialized short films and marketed to young boys hoping to see exotic, scantily-clad women, fantastic adventure in far away lands and plenty of fast-moving action and heroics.
The film remains true to its origins by offering a flimsy script bloated with modern clichés and casual banter. Although poorly directed and in the case of Sargon, poorly cast, the lead actors are what keeps the movie marginally entertaining long after the predictable plot, generic effects work and poorly edited screen fighting grows weary.
Like Dwayne Johnson, Michael Copon has a certain natural charisma that works well with the character and in his playful exchanges with Karen David. He’s a bit stiff in his fighting movements but ably projects the necessary strength and confidence in motion that his role demands.
David is a feminine firecracker, an alluring mix of tom boyish energy and beauty with a background in fencing who delivers a capable first fighting role. She has the mark of a female action star in the making.
Natalie Becker is no Kelly Hu but that’s okay. She brings her own level of sexuality to her role. Her screen fighting is the weakest of all of the leads but still isn’t bad given the limited time the stunt team had to work with the cast. My thanks go to the costume designer for Becker’s tastefully revealing outfits.
As far as acting goes, Simon Quarterman easily runs circles around the rest of the cast with his colorful performance as Ari. With his distinctive looks, crisp British accent and rare poise, Quarterman is like a young Peter O’Toole. I’m hoping to see more from him in more respectable film roles.
Tom Wu, a wushu-trained native of both Hong Kong and Britain gets his first break from relative obscurity by portraying a Chinese acrobat-turned-prisoner who is looking to find his way back to China. Russell Mulcahy didn’t seem to know what to do with him so he ends up tagging along with the heroes until he finally breaks out with some fighting moves of his own.
The only “actor” left to discuss is Randy Couture, a UFC champion who has followed other MMA fighting of late into the acting arena. He looks like a serious badass but I kept thinking through the whole film that he was completely miscast. His stiff, emotionless line delivery probably had something to do with it. Some actors do not belong in period movies, let alone as a calculating warlord who eventually turns into a giant computer-generated scorpion. With his chiseled looks, physical conditioning and no-nonsense demeanor, Couture needs to be playing military or police characters in a modern-day setting. He’d be ideal for a starring role in a remake of DELTA FORCE or something similar.
Fight choreography for the film is solid but nothing special. Stunt actor performances and the movements themselves are adequate. What hinders the action is the poor action direction of Russell Mulcahy and the film’s pitiful action editing. Mulcahy and his crew chop the fight scenes all to hell and greatly abuse their ability to speed up and slow down the scenes to enhance movements. In listening to bonus content on the DVD release of the film, I was reminded that Mulcahy started out working in music videos. That says a lot. His idea of presenting an action scene is to make it look like a three-minute commercial. It’s rubbish. Pacing is off. Tension is off. The camera frequently cuts away from impact points – where a fist or sword meets its mark – to quickly reveal the reaction only. Cheap fight scene editing tricks like this are what you use when you either have very little time to get the choreography looking good or when you honestly think it looks cool. By the looks of it, the choreography was fine so I can only surmise that Mulcahy made some bad aesthetic calls.
The finale to the movie is a perfect example of what not to do when tying up an action movie. As Mathayus confronts Sargon, some ridiculously contrived scenario was thought up where a crowd of arena patrons are locked in and sprayed with oil as archers with flaming arrows wait above to light them up. I’m still trying to figure out why this was necessary but beyond that the attempt by Layla and Fong (Wu) to rescue the crowd is badly executed. Again, the editing is a disaster. Making matters worse, Mulcahy cuts this scene in with the Mathayus-versus-Sargon fight. Actually, there really isn’t any fight at all aside from a couple swings before Mathayus ends up tangling with a giant, invisible scorpion. I’ll take old school, Ray Harryhausen claymation any day over this garbage. This scene only rivals an earlier fight with a Minotaur for being one of the worst fantasy matches ever shot.
It’s understood that the filmmakers were under pressure to produce a “big budget” movie with a low-budget schedule. That tells me the producers had unrealistic expectations. It’s an unfortunate situation because this movie could have turned out a lot better, at least as standard genre fare, had the filmmakers had more time and resources to fully realize their vision. Yet that’s the story of countless films.
Tom Hannam deserves praise for his quality production design, particularly with the elaborate sets. The jungle underworld looked fantastic, especially with the genuinely creepy live-action creature effects of Rob Carlisle. Although this is a PG-13 movie with vanilla, TV-grade visual effects there were a few gruesome moments that recalled the glory days of creature effects work in films like ALIENS and THE THING. I never thought I’d say this now but they don’t make genre movies like that anymore and it makes me sad.
THE SCORPION KING 2 is not a great film but it’s still marginally better than producer Stephen Sommer’s other, more mainstream summer release THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. Although that film had the bigger budget and the bigger-name actors including Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, it was such a huge disappointment, which coupled with non-existent screen chemistry from the stars led to something worse than the relatively small disappointment that is THE SCORPION KING 2. This film actually enjoys fairly good screen chemistry, a more interesting cast and action scenes that are just a wee bit easier to follow.
Speaking as a screen fighting fan, I don’t expect a lot from these genre actioners. The scripts can be hokey and the acting poor but the action needs to be quality. If they cannot shoot and edit quality action scenes for an action movie then they should consider shooting daytime TV soaps or pack up and go home. It’s the one area that these genre filmmakers are not allowed to screw up on. It’s like making a horror movie with bad splatter effects and no scares. It alienates the target audience which is something that Russell Mulcahy seemed determined to do.REVIEW: Scorpion King 2, The: Rise of a Warrior (2008),
swordplay • The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008)